Friday, June 3, 2016


NBC’s News and Information Service (NIS) began on June 18, 1975 with the boast “The Most Important Day in Radio History.” When NIS died eighteen months later, it was known as one of the biggest turds in American radio history. What happened to the 24/7 news network?

Common wisdom is that NIS failed because it “was ahead of its time” and was too expense, both of which are partially true.  According to a former NIS staffer who asked not to be named, NIS failed because of “Lack of imagination and poor execution.” Plus it sounded awful – “group-think” at its worst. (Scroll down to hear what NIS sounded like.)

Forty years later, NIS could have been a major news source that might have challenged NPR News.

Jack Thayer
In the fall of 1974 NBC Radio was trailing the other big nets ABC, CBS and Mutual.  NBC’s O&O (Owned and Operated) FM stations were languishing. The radio division, run by Jack Thayer, needed a big new idea.

ABC Radio had revolutionized the business of network radio when, in 1969, they began feeding four different newscasts each hour designed for specific formats. At the time most radio stations carried network newscasts.  ABC’s bold move allowed them to quadruple its number of affiliates.

Thayer held brainstorming sessions to determine NBC’s next big thing. According to the former NIS staffer several scenarios were considered. One option, pushed by younger folks, was a live hourly version of Earth News, a counter-culture news service delivered to stations via scripts and transcription discs.

At that time FM listener penetration in many markets was beginning to top AM stations. NPR was just getting started; their only national news program at the time was a 90-minute version of All Things Considered. This was before Morning Edition – some NPR stations didn’t even sign on until Noon.

Alan Walden

In 1976 a 24/7 national news service was a new idea.  This was before CNN.  The model was local news & weather AMs such as 1010 WINS, KNX and KFWB. So NIS was breaking new ground and the eyes of the biz were on them.

Thayer decided to turn the project over to Alan Walden, an old-school AM radio personality, who was successful running WBAL-AM in Baltimore.


On February 10, 1975, The New York Times broke the news about NBC’s NIS 24/7 news network that would make full use of the resources of NBC News. At a news conference Thayer said NIS would feed affiliates 50-minutes per hour of content. Stations would need to pay $15,000 per month in the largest markets, $750 per month in the smallest markets plus mandatory commercial carriage. Thayer predicted NIS would have affiliates in 75 of the top 100 markets.
Walden went to work building the NIS staff of over 200 people. Many of the founding staff came from AM news powerhouses like 1010 WINS, WCBS and KNX.

Walden crafted a format clock with something for everybody: Headlines, features, commentaries, vox pop and interviews, all sliced and diced into short chunks of time to fit in the tight clock.

When NIS debuted on June 18, 1976, it had fewer than 50 affiliates. Even some of NBC’s O&O FMs refused to carry it.  Many stations balked at the high cash fees and onerous commercial requirements. So NBC began marketing NIS as an updated version of Monitor, a weekend news service that was popular in the 1950s and 1960s.

By Spring 1976, most of the NIS affiliates were old beat up AM stations, many former Top 40 giants like KRUX in Phoenix, KUDL in Kansas City and WPOP in Hartford. The ratings weren’t great.

I looked up the Spring 1976 Arbitron ratings published by Duncan’s American Radio found on the American Radio History website [link], a truly amazing historical resource. At that time NIS was on 10 FM stations and 25 AM stations in rated markets.  Only 19 stations were in the top 100 radio markets.

There were also audio quality issues. Andy Denemark, now Executive VP for Programming at United States, joined NBC in 1980 to market The Source, NBC’s service for AOR stations. Some people at The Source previously worked at NIS and told Denemark about technical faults at NIS:

[NIS was] delivered on phone lines in those days... a 5k equalized line into major markets, a 3.5k un-equalized line into smaller towns. The high cost of those “webs” of wires (for which the phone company charged by mileage) was outrageous.

According to Arbitron, NIS stations had around 2,000,000 estimated weekly cumulative listeners. Most of them only used the NIS overnight. The end was in sight.

The New York Times reported on November 4, 1976, NBC had pulled the plug on NIS. There were fewer than 70 affiliated stations.  NIS had lost more than $20,000,000 (close to $400,000,000 in 2016 dollars).  Heads rolled.

UPDATE 9am  6/4/16: NIS staff found out they were :toast" at a staff meeting conducted by Dick Wald, then the head of NBC News, the morning after they covered the 1976 election.

The notion that the staff found out NIS was cancelled from the news wires is a mistaken urban legend.

After NIS folded, there was never another serious attempt at a commercial 24/7 news service. Now NBC is out of the radio news businesses.


As I said above, I think it sounded awful. Give a quick listen to a two-minute scoped version of NIS on WNWS-FM, New York, during afternoon drive in August 1976.  

UPDATE 2pm 5/3/15: According to Jim Farley, who was at NIS and now is at WTOP, this aircheck was afternoon drive.  However my source for the audio says it was a tape of the 6pm hour.

 Direct link:


The following is completely conjecture.

The former NIS staffer (who did not want to be identified) mentioned that one alternative plan for what became NIS was to create an alternative news service for Album Oriented Rock (AOR) stations.  Rock on FM in 1976 was becoming a major success. Stations like WNEW and WPLJ in New York, KMET and KLOS in LA and WXRT in Chicago dominated listening by folks under 40.  What if instead of an AM clone like NIS, NBC would have set up a specialized news service for AOR and other contemporary rock stations.

Suppose NBC had decided to bring in programming folks who understood the potential for FM news to reach younger listeners with a more modern presentation style and sensibility. In 1976 key creators of NPR such as Jim Russell and Jay Kernis were guns for hire.  Both had worked in commercial broadcasting and both new how to do a start up with a lean budget.

Suppose they attracted the best and brightest young reporters and storytellers.

Suppose it was still in business when MSNBC got a life in the mid 2000s.

Suppose Rachel Maddow (a seasoned radio vet with Air America) did a TV, online and FM simulcast truly using the resources of NBC News. I think it would have worked.

Thursday, June 2, 2016


This week we have been featuring folks who are working with public radio station-based programs who have terrific futures ahead of them. Today we look at three program hosts who could, if they want to, work at any shop in the public radio system. All are terrific storytellers and multi-platform players. The future of public media, particularly public radio, is bright if we can keep giving them new opportunities to shine.

Emily Jo Cureton
Co-Host & Producer
The Jefferson Exchange
Jefferson Public Radio
Medford, Oregon

Emily Jo Cureton has been working in public media for about a decade.  She knows sometimes a person needs to make big moves to advance a career. These days Emily is a co-host (with Geoffrey Riley) and producer of The Jefferson Exchange [link] in southern Oregon. 

Jefferson Public Radio (JPR) is in the imaginary state of “Jefferson.” Jefferson refers to what coulda, shoulda been a state including northern California and southern Oregon. JPR blankets the region with three distinct program streams.

Rural Oregon is a long way from where Emily started. She was born and raised in the Dallas area in 1985. She graduated for UT-Austin in 2007 with degrees in History, Art, Russian linguistics. But she actually majored in radio and was a DJ and program manager at KVRX, UT’s nifty college station.

Emily got into the public media biz in 2009 as a volunteer host, DJ and news contributor for KRTS Marfa Public Radio in west Texas. As you probably know, KRTS is one of the most creative an innovative small-market shops in public media.

Then she moved to the west coast to work as a print journalist and part-time “Deadbeat DJ” (her words) at community station KFUG in Crescent City, California. At KFUG she “expanded her altered states of aural consciousness” (again, her words) before travelling to Costa Rica.

In 2015 Emily got the gig at JPR. She is now based in Medford and continues to write and perform in many forms of media: blogging, print journalism, essays, visual arts and design. If you are having a gathering, Emily is also a great party DJ.
Paul Guggenheimer
Host, Essential Pittsburgh
WESA, Pittsburgh

Paul Guggenheimer is living proof that you can go home again and make a difference. Paul is now is drawing praise for his professionalism and grace as the host of WESA’s daily talk/interview show Essential Pittsburgh [link].

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Virginia Linn in 2015 article [link] told  Guggenheimer’s story. 

Paul grew up in suburban Pittsburgh and began in the biz as a volunteer at WDUQ at age 16. After high school, he left Pittsburgh for over two decades. Paul graduated from Emerson College and experienced WERS followed by radio gigs in Washington, DC, Iowa and South Dakota. SoDak turned out to be his ticket back to Pittsburgh.

For several years he was host and producer of South Dakota Public Radio’s daily talk show Dakota Midday. At the small, rural shop he honed his chops interviewing Daniel Ellsberg, Kevin Costner, George McGovern and anybody who is anyone in state.

But Pittsburgh was always on his mind.  He told Linn:

When I was away from Pittsburgh, I most missed my family. They have always lived here, including my Mom and Dad, two brothers, a sister in law, a niece and nephew and my aunt and cousin. Most mornings I get up ... grateful to be alive and wishing I could sleep for another hour.

Melissa Ross
Host & Producer, First Coast Connect
WJCT, Jacksonville

Melissa Ross joined WJCT in 2009 with 20 years of experience in broadcasting, including stints in Cincinnati, Chicago, Orlando and Jacksonville as a commercial  radio and television news anchor and reporter. She won four regional Emmys for her TV work. 

Then she left broadcasting to work in corporate communications at a Jacksonville ad agency. She missed the immediacy of live radio.  After three years in the ad world she left to join WJCT in 2009. Since then she has been doing remarkable work at First Coast Connect [link]. 
Bigger assignments keep coming Ross’s way. In December, 2015 she was a guest host of The Diane Rehm Show.

“It’s a big honor,” she told the local paper [link] after her return for DC. “I admire her on a number of levels,” Ross said. “She’s unfailingly dignified, civil and polite. She is respectful of her guests, and respectful of her listeners. That’s always important, especially now, when we’re debating so many difficult issues.”

Wednesday, June 1, 2016


This week we are taking a look at station-based Talk/Interview programs that air weekdays on NPR News stations. Every program engages listeners with its broadcasts and streaming audio. Beyond these basics there are many, many digital platforms to choose from.

To get an idea of where stations engage listeners we did a survey of 16 programs chosen at random from the 60+ Talk/Interview programs we are tracking.

There was no surprise about the top three choices: Email, Twitter and Facebook. There was one surprise: Lack of use of YouTube.  YouTube has become an important audio platform.  YouTube is ubiquitous, so why not take advantage of it?

One question: What is a Podcast? Several of the programs observed were just replays of programs.  I guess a “Podcast” is whatever you want it to be.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016


The future of public media depends on nurturing promising folks in the early stages of their careers. They are our future.  But, sometimes it is hard for newbies to know where to start.  One choice with career potential is producing a public radio Talk/Interview program. They pay is usually meager and the job takes lots of time. But it gives someone a wide perspective on how news and information is acquired, presented and reformatted for multiple platforms.

Today we take a look at four emerging producers of station-based Talk/Interview programs who are earning praise from peers and listeners.

Producer, Word of Mouth
New Hampshire Public Radio

Taylor Quimby (Photo credit: Current)
Taylor Quimby started his career in radio in 2010 as a part-time board operator for New Hampshire Public Radio (NHPR).  He now producers NHPR’s daily Talk/Interview program Word of Mouth

Quimby is known as an all-position player.  He thrives on new ideas, writes and produces program segments and occasionally is a substitute host. Recently Quimby came to national attention when his blog post Lessons from Failed Interviews was reprinted in Current. Here are excerpts from Quimby’s post:

[In 2013] I was the program’s primary director — it was up to me to make quick calls about when to drop a guest, keep an ear out for the pace of the program, and figure out what to do when things weren’t going the way we had planned.

Here are a few of my favorite “failed” interviews from when Word of Mouth was broadcast live, and the lessons they imparted:
Taylor Quimby

• The Legend of The Easter Weasel

In 2011, a personal collection of lost fairy tales and fables was discovered in a locked archive in Germany. The following year, the collection was published — so we booked the cultural curator responsible, Erika Eichenseer, for a 12-minute interview on Word of Mouth.

While we had emailed back and forth with Erika, nobody on staff had actually spoken to her. Once we got her on the air, we discovered that her strong accent, combined with the international line from Germany, made for an awkward (but somehow still charming) conversation.

Lessons learned: If it doesn’t need to be live, tape it! Also, never skip the pre-interview if your guest speaks English as a second language.

• Al Green and the Not-So-Magical Tour Bus

In 2012, soul superstar Al Green performed at The Music Hall in Portsmouth, N.H. In the days leading up to his event, Word of Mouth was offered a chance to interview him, with a couple of caveats: He would do it only by cellphone, and he would have to be interviewed from his noisy tour bus.

But how could we say no? It’s AL GREEN!

It was a very bizarre interview. One of his songs was playing in the background and Green started speaking to other people on the bus [during the interview]. We saved a couple minutes of this interview for broadcast, but most of it was left on the cutting room floor.

Lesson Learned: No interviews from the tour bus!

• The Most Awesome Not-Awesome Interview OF ALL TIME

In 2011, California bookseller John Tottenham started a campaign to rid the world of the word “awesome”. A former producer for Word of Mouth, Avishay Artsy, rightly suggested we interview him — it was a funny little story — although he added a word of warning that John’s voice was somewhat “monotone.”

He set up the interview and wrote the script, but I (in a very optimistic rookie moment) scheduled the interview for a full eleven minutes. This, by the way, is the length of time you might spend with a nationally renowned novelist or Pulitzer Prize—winning journalist — not for a guy who doesn’t like the word “awesome.”

What starts off as an incredibly funny conversation (I was in tears in the control room from the very beginning) slowly becomes one of the longest and most cringe-worthy interviews witnessed in my tenure as a producer at Word of Mouth.

Host Virginia Prescott does an incredible job trying to fill the time allotted (sorry, Virginia!) but ultimately has to dump out a full minute early. [I] stopped smiling and started thinking: “How much more of this is left?”

Lessons Learned: Less is usually better — so when determining the length of a segment, be conservative. And have something ready in case you need to dump out…

Producer, Up To Date
KCUR, Kansas City

Danie Alexander
Danie Alexander started at KCUR in 2007 as an intern for Up to Date after graduating from the University of Missouri – Kansas City. She didn’t get offered a job right away and she loved the work she was doing on the program.  So she continued with KCUR as a volunteer. She proved her worth.

In December 2011, Danie was hired at KCUR as a temporary on-air announcer and became the Saturday afternoon “voice” of the station. In August 2012 she became associate producer for Up to Date. Danie moved up to producer in September of 2014.

Folks at KCUR know sometimes the best new talent is sitting beside you today.

Iowa Public Radio Talk Show Producer
& Stand Up Comedian

Clare Roth on stage at an Iowa comedy club
Clare Roth started working at Iowa Public Radio (IPR) as a seasonal news reporter in 2012. After she graduated from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, she worked at Minnesota Public Radio and The Onion. Then Roth returned to IPR as a talk show producer which is her job today. But, that is only part of her story.

Roth has been doing stand-­up comedy at venues across the Midwest. Her specialties are monologues about sex, mortality, and other “light” topics. Roth also produces a podcast about children’s books in her precious spare time.

Interim Executive Producer, Stateside

Joe Linstroth
Joe Linstroth began in the biz as co-founder of a couple of sketch comedy groups in Chicago. He started as an intern at WBEZ and then became a producer at WBEZ’s daily global program Worldview. He then moved to WKAR, East Lansing, where he was the founding senior producer of the daily magazine show Current State.

When Linstroth left to move to Ann Arbor, his associates at WKAR post this as a tribute on the Current State website:

Current State bids a reluctant but fond farewell today to the founding producer of our program. Joe Linstroth returns to his Ann Arbor alma mater as he leaves WKAR for a position at the University of Michigan's public radio station.

Joe has been at the heart and soul of Current State since its launch on January 14, 2013. From the beginning, Joe's approach to leading Current State was to dream big and dream local.

Monday, May 30, 2016


Today is a day off for many of us but not so for American forces around the world. In the spirit of Memorial Day here is a video I produced a few years ago honoring my late uncle Kendall.  Even though he died long before I was born I feel a kinship towards him.  I am named for him!

Kendall was a Navy pilot during World War 2.  In 1943 German U-boats were a constant threat, particularly in the Caribbean.  My uncle was patrolling there for U-boats when his plane was shot down in the early August of 1943. The remains of his plane were never found.

A few years ago was contacted by a woman who claimed to be his wartime lover. They became very close from the time he was training until his death. I interview her and created this video as a tribute to both of them.

There are a couple of ties to radio.  From what I’ve been told, Kendall was an avid radio listener.  He talks about it in his letters home. The voice of Kendall in this video is Nick Marcotte, son news consultant Michael Marcotte. I hope you enjoy the video!

 Direct link: